A Drop of Midnight

Soul-searching – a hip-hop artist’s journey to come to terms with his multiracial identity (from Sweden to American roots, 2015 – 2016; epilogue 2019): A stanza from Maya Angelou’s powerful poem, And Still I Rise, sets the piercing message and lyrical tone of A Drop of Midnight, Jason Diakité’s stunning memoir that should be essential reading on black history. 

You may shoot me with your words,

You may cut me with your eyes,

You may kill me with your hatefulness,

But still, like air, I’ll rise.

An international hip-hop star, the author is known professionally as Timbuktu. So expect to be treated to an illuminating discussion on hip-hop music and culture originating from the “ghetto streets” of Harlem, Bronx, and Brooklyn, New York to its spread world-wide – instrumental to Diakité’s rise above an “identity crisis” he’s struggled with much of his life.

For decades, Diakité sought to overcome all the pain, shame, loneliness he’s felt about his light brown skin color. With a father who is black and a mother who is white, he was caught up in a turbulent state of “in-between-ness.” To better understand his feelings, himself, he sought to better understand his family’s history. So also expect a thoughtful, sweeping yet distilled examination of African American history, and a realization that his music and his history are entwined.

Who am I? Who are my people? Where is my home?” are the overriding questions. Many, many more are achingly asked to embrace the black and white worlds Diakité straddles.

Born in Sweden to parents and ancestors from Nigeria, Harlem, the Deep South, Native America, and elsewhere, he explains:

“I have a complex system of roots that branches across continents, ethnicities, classes, colors, and eras . . . I am all the countries my forefathers came from and were shipped to in chains. I am all the colors and shades of their skin. I am their rage and their longing, their hardships, successes, and dreams. I am the intersection, of Slovakia, Germany, France, South Carolina. Of white, black, and Cherokee.”

His parents met, married, and lived in Harlem, then moved to Sweden to escape racism; divorced, they remain amicable. The three live in different Swedish cities: Diakité in Stockholm, his father – who prefers his African name Madubuko – in Malmö, his mother Elaine in Lund.

Despite his father’s achievements (a documentary filmmaker and human rights lawyer), he’s carried the heavy weight of “poverty and misery.” His mother is from an entirely different background: her family made their money coal-mining in Pennsylvania. Striking how “ashamed” she felt being white once she met Madubuko, while their son was ashamed his skin was not.

At forty, Diakité looks back to when he was conscious of his skin color, at eight. His middle school years were marked by relentless bullying – “pigmentocracy” – that “colonized my soul and trickled out back like a poison.” “Where do young kids learn so much soul-crushing hate?”

His parents chose Scandinavia for its human rights legacy until immigration changed that. First they moved to Copenhagen, where his father planned to attend film school, moved when he learned education was free in Sweden. A great believer in “education and the dignity it gives you,” advice his well-read son took to heart. Literature, especially the works of “black intellectuals,” informed Diakité’s identity development. Black writers like W. E. B. Du Bois, Langston Hughes, Angela Davis, Eldridge Cleaver, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, Richard Wright, Zora Nelson Hurston, Cornell West, and more. Inspiring, for all who believe in the power of literature.

Dignity is what rises above “grinding poverty.” “In our day, his father says, “dignity was important. You didn’t want to look poor. We may have been poor in a financial sense, but spiritually we weren’t.” A proud man, adamant against his son writing this memoir. Eventually, he consents.

Written on a chronological identity path, but mixed with difficult conversations back and forth over time with his father, probing questions with his mother too. There’s other voices – relatives, friends, artists, activists – but it’s Diakité’s literary voice and courage to dig deeply that makes the memoir sing. Even when the songs are painful to hear.

Dignity is what’s shown in the revealing opening line about Diakité’s dignified grandfather, Solomon Warren Robinson, nicknamed Silas, whose “shoes were always shined.” A Drop of Midnight always shines too, even when ugly truths are told and anger roars in profanity in dialogue, forcing us to listen to what’s really being expressed.

Silas, who proudly “never missed a day of work,” is the first reference to black history. A waiter on a dining car on the long-distance trains of the Pullman Company launched after the Civil War (lasted until the ‘60s). The company was notorious for hiring black waiters and porters who toiled long-hours in low-paying jobs. But historians claim this gave rise to a black middle class and the civil rights movement.

The author possesses and cherishes Silas’ threadbare coat “woven of the same cotton” he and his parents picked in Allendale, South Carolina. It’s the first stop on Diakité’s physical journey to America in 2015, alone. What he finds is unbearably depressing poverty. Another family place he visits is Harlem, also “born of misery” but it’s also the birthplace of hip-hop music:

“Infectiously captivating and full of such bold emotions that they permeated everything else – contemporary music, fashion, art, the way people talk, the way people walk, the way people are.”

Infectiously captivating perfectly describes this book.

After twenty years of devoting his life to music, which gave the artist a positive sense of self but ended his marriage like his parents,’ he finds himself at a crossroads, asking: “What should I do with the rest of my years”?

To answer that, he’s compelled to investigate his family’s history that’s instructive to him, and us. Activism common among them. One character looms large: his hardened paternal grandmother Madame, an advocate for “Pan Africanism,” which sought to unify the dispersed peoples of Africa.

Madubuko’s storytelling is the loudest and key to Diakité understanding himself. A witness to the explosive sixties, history we must never forget – when MLK, Malcolm X, and JFK, a champion of civil rights, were all taken from us, while the KKK did its destruction in the Deep South.

There’s also history and stories that lift us up. Music, of course, chief among them. Like the time the author discovered hip-hop music in the ‘80s sitting in a Swedish theater watching a bouncy film made on the streets of New York, Beat Street.

And the time Diakité’s father brought him his first hip-hop record, Break Dance Party. Performed by a group named Break Machine, it became his break into breakdancing, camaraderie, and affirmation. “Rap music radiates an attitude of you may trample us down, but you can never shut us up.”

Music is healing. Music connects Diakité with his father’s dear Swedish friend, Don, when they all get together and music plays. Though, jazz, blues, and hip-hop always go back to “slaves’ songs.”

Besides Harlem and the Deep South, Diakité also visits Baltimore to see his Uncle Obedike. A symbol of rampant, racially motivated gun violence, he was a police officer shot during the city’s ”race riots” in 2015 that erupted over the cruel death of Freddie Gray.

“How can people live with shutting out the truth generation after generation?” Diakité asks. Seems he’s found his own answer to this question and to what comes next. By sharing his lessons to finding inner peace, he’s become an advocate for global peace through diversity.

Lorraine

A love of reading is a gift, especially during these social distancing times.

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142 Ostriches

Ostriches! A captivating, inventive coming-of-age story (Mojave Desert, San Bernardino County, California; July presumably present-day): Cheers for the new heroine on the block. The block being a California road paralleling legendary Route 66 in the Mojave Desert leading into the Wishbone Ranch. Not your average Western ranch as this one raises ostriches for their eggs, “the size of footballs.” 142 Ostriches is as captivating as these giant feathered creatures, the tallest birds on earth.

Size of ostrich egg:

With less than a hundred ostrich farms dotting the U.S., April Dávila’s debut is most unusual. Set on forty-acres amidst the hottest and driest place in North America – favorable conditions for bigger-than-human-sized birds originally from Africa that don’t fly. How could they, weighing 300 pounds and standing 8 feet tall? Fascinating birds at the center of this thrown-into-the-fire coming-of-age story.

Ostriches, with their peculiar delights and challenges, bring a lifetime’s worth of headaches – yet over only a few days during one scorching-hot July desert summer – for twenty-four-year old Talluhah Jones who suddenly inherits an ostrich ranch she doesn’t want. What she wants is to finally determine her own destiny.

Ostriches trigger this fast-paced ride for Talluhah and us as her troubles come at her one after another. When the ride is over, you’ll wish her story makes it to the movie screen, which you can envision because Dávila’s sharp, descriptive prose puts us into cinematic scenes that ping-pong from worse to bad, bad to worse, to death-defying.

Like a good movie, 142 Ostriches starts off with a bang: “Four days before the ostriches stopped laying eggs, Grandma Helen died in an accident that wasn’t really an accident.”

That’s the kind of opening sentence that hooks a reader. From there, the pace keeps going and going. Over-the-top, packing in a lot in just 250+ pages.

That winning one-liner sets up two storylines. What’s going on with the ostriches? Why aren’t they laying any eggs? How can Talluhah manage all the birds when it takes her “eight frustrating hours to do a chore than would have taken two with Grandma Helen”? And, why does Talluhah suspect her grandmother may have taken her own life?

If it weren’t for Helen, who knows what would have happened to Talluhah. For the first thirteen years of her life, her anyway-the-wind-blows mother moved her from apartment to apartment without any explanation or heads-up, leaving her alone at night bartending and sleeping during the day. Talluhah doesn’t even know who her father is; doesn’t matter to her mother who “didn’t think twice about losing people because they were all, friends and lovers alike, entirely replaceable.” Then, one day her widowed grandmother showed up, scooped her away from the dangers of big city life in Oakland, California to give her a more stable, safer upbringing. Still a lonely one, as Grandma wasn’t the warm and cuddly type. Showed more tenderness towards her ostriches than to her granddaughter and three children.

Eleven years on the ranch hasn’t changed Talluhah’s uneasiness around the ostriches. For starters, their two toes are “tipped with pre-historic looking claws” that can kill. Yes, there’s “something sweet in their giant eyes,” larger than any other bird, but don’t think you can outsmart them with eyes “bigger than brains” as they’re also the fastest birds on earth. You may want to keep a distance from them, but Dávila makes sure you don’t.

Watching them run is comical, adding lightness to Tallulah’s plight.

Ostriches are endearing in other ways. Males (roosters) are wonderfully democratic way with their hen mates, taking turns sitting on their nests. Males (black-and-white feathers) on night duty, females (light brown) during the day. The ones with names win us over, like Abigail the most pet-like. She doesn’t follow the flock, rather follows you around and loves to play. With a noticeable limp, she’s the most relatable and sympathetic. Second is Lady Lil, flapping her enormous wings with a “graceful salute.” As for the rest, it’s all about reading their “posture and sound. Friendly curiosity manifested in lilting head bobs”; under stress “low, whooping reverberation” cries, echoing across the desert emptiness.

Loner Talluhah is not totally alone. She has a boyfriend, Devon, but he, like taking over the ranch, would pin her down, while she craves excitement and purpose. That’s why she planned to be headed soon to Minnesota for a job as a Forest Ranger. He says he loves her, but does she love him? Content with working at a cement company and lazying away his free time at Pat’s Bar, where they met. It’s the only game in the tiny town closest to the ranch, Sombra, which appears to be a fictional place, but represents all the ghost-like places out West. The closest real one is thirty-miles away in Victorville, with the San Gabriel Mountains a hundred miles west.

San Gabriel Mountains via Rennett Stowe on Flickr

Talluhah doesn’t know what she wants other than independence and the great outdoors. The “perfect rhythms of nature” seem to be what’s held her together, surrounded by the “beautiful in a lonely way” desert, marveling at the “elegant wisdom of the ecosystem.”

Dávila’s nature writing is elegant too as it seeps through the chaos. Talluhah is in awe of the desert’s “spectacular” sunrise. How it reaches “across the valley and washed orange over the tops of the mountains in the west; how “the color rolled down in a lazy cascade” looking like “an undulating sea speckled with hardy plants that cast long shadows in the early morning light.” There’s a lovely ease to nature’s prose, in stark contrast to the tensions that mount and mount.

Talluhah wonders if her long-abandoned mother will show up at her own mother’s funeral. Ditto for the other wayward child, Uncle Steve, a fragile recovering methamphetamine addict, ubiquitous in the valley. Helen’s third child, Aunt Christine, resents him terribly. “Life is hard, Steve, but we deal. We don’t go running off to get high,” she says angrily. Unfortunately, he does show up.

Christine’s habits may annoy Talluhah but she can’t help admiring how mothering she is of her five young children, pregnant with another. Contending with her own issues, she’s been a good daughter to Helen, visiting and cooking often, so Talluhah is closer to her than anyone else. Given all the dysfunction in the family, it’s striking how much grace and inner strength Christine has found through her deep spirituality (but still can’t forgive her piece-of-work brother.) Given the life Talluhah has been dealt, how could she believe in anything? That’s the point: she hasn’t given up, keeps fighting.

Helen chose Talluhah as the sole beneficiary of her beloved ranch knowing something about Talluhah she doesn’t. Will she discover it before it’s too late? By the time of the funeral, she’s hastily sold the ranch to Joe Jared, itching to buy it for years. Grandma’s refusals the source of tremendous guilt, along with knowing JJ’s large scale ostrich operation isn’t engaged in humane animal practices. So much pressure, remorse, grief for a young woman to carry around, especially when she’s signed legal documents and then discovers the ostriches have stopped producing eggs!

How could so much happen to one person in such a short time? Mind you, this is a toned-down preview of the dangerous road ahead for our intrepid heroine. How do we hold on when everything goes wrong? Ask Talluhah.

Lorraine

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The Night Watchman

Rescuing and preserving a threatened indigenous culture (Turtle Mountain Chippewa Indian Reservation, northern North Dakota, 1950s): The Chippewa Indians, also known as The Ojibwe, have become known through the award-winning novels of Louise Erdrich, herself a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa in North Dakota, near the Canadian border. The Night Watchman, her 16th novel, is the work of a master storyteller.

Dedicated to the historical legacy and spirit of a great, hardworking man – Patrick Gourneau, the author’s grandfather – who barely slept toiling day and night as both a night watchman at a factory near the Turtle Mountain reservation; and as leader of the Chippewa governing council, fighting to save his Anishinaabe (First Nations) people from being wiped out by the Federal government in the ‘50s under the guise of white-washed words like assimilation, emancipation, relocation.

The Chippewa survival story is centuries-old. Yet its relevance and poignancy can be seen today in their public struggle to uphold their American right to vote.

Historical genocide, mid-century “termination,” and contemporary racism towards the Chippewas shows the worst of humanity. Which is why Erdrich’s ability to infuse beauty and love is outstanding. Through authentic, interconnected characters who profoundly believe in their connectedness with their promised land and Mother Earth, she, like the tribe’s weaving skills, weaves eloquent prose that pays tribute to real and fictional heroes. Impoverished yet unyielding, “even poor people can love their land.”

Erdrich’s masterwork also serves as an action call to human rights activists, environmentalists, and all of us to do better with the things we possess, take for granted, aspire to, advocate for.

For readers, the storytelling is heartfelt and heart-tugging, genuine to the core. Dialogue comes from many multi-generational voices whose words aren’t fancy, rather, gentle and simple in a stoic, beautiful way. Despite depths of accumulated bitterness and raw anger, the prose reflects despair without resorting to profanity.

A 3rd person narrator shares elders’ wisdom, spirituality, and the strengths, weaknesses, vulnerabilities of characters. Often seen in forceful dreams and visions in the form of ghosts, benevolent and evil. Erdrich’s ghosts are everywhere, imbuing magical realism, bridging the real world and the supernatural one.

Fictionally, grandfather Patrick is Thomas Wazhushk, part of the “after-the-buffalo-who-are-we-now generation.” Asking, “how should being an Indian relate to this country that had conquered, and was trying in every way to absorb them?”

Except for Thomas, all the other Chippewa characters are fictional. The goal is not to focus singly on eye-opening history, but to tell it through symbolic, vivid stories of the realities of daily life, bolstered by a oneness with Nature, real and mystical.

Patrice, Thomas’ loosely-defined niece, is the other central character. Offended when anyone calls her by her nickname Pixie, since she’s strong-willed, serious, smart, and has ambitions.

Patrice’s mother Zhannat symbolizes survival – the lengths she goes to protect herself and her family from the physical abuse and trauma inflicted by her terrifying husband, always drunk. He’s what “all misery” looks and feels like as alcoholism is pernicious and pervasive on reservations. No surprise Patrice aspires to different things in life other than marriage and children. Her self-protectiveness constantly tested as two men are infatuated or in love with her. One is white, the other Chippewa, providing another dimension to Native American and white relationships.

Zhannat’s strength is something to behold. How she’s able to still nurture her family – including Vera, Patrice’s older sister and Pokey, her younger brother – and others who seek her out for healing. Foods, teas, and medicines she concocts from “bear root, wiikenh, prairie sage, sweetgrass, kinnikinnick,” the effort it takes to hunt for these ingredients, are powerful acts of love from someone who “treated everything around her with great care.” Scarce yet ever-present, we’re introduced to bannock bread and pemmican, made from “dried meat, sweet juneberries, musky Pemba berries, sugared tallow.”

Some Chippewa words are translated, others you can always look up in the Ojibwe People’s Dictionary. Besides Chippewa, other French dialects are mixed in as the tribe also descended from Canada.

Vera’s potent storyline is like an ominous, brooding cloud that looms heavy. An extreme example of what could go terribly wrong if you and your husband are fooled into believing the government’s relocation plan to move to Minnesota offers an “Exciting Community Life and Beautiful Homes.”

The two men dazzled by Patrice are Barnes, a white math teacher at the Mission school who doubles as the boxing coach, and one of his Chippewa students Wood Mountain, an up-and-coming boxer. They reflect the significance of sports on Indian reservations. We’re likely more familiar with the role of basketball not boxing, learning about a feature of reservation life going on for decades.

Boxing is not just a game and entertainment, but a vital source of pride, self-esteem, and development. Tension too, as winning means so much. What touches our hearts is seeing the poorest of poor hitching rides to travel distances to root for their sons and community playing against other tribes as if their lives depended on it.

The Night Watchman opens in September 1953, one month after Congress introduced legislation to eliminate all Native American reservations, specifically citing the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa for “immediate termination.” A legal battle that unites the community.

Patrice and two of her friends – Valentine, her best friend, and Doris, a white girl whose family bought dirt cheap reservation land that could be farmed and owns the car that drives the three to the plant where they work – same workplace Thomas watches overnight. (Rare jobs close to a reservation that Thomas had a hand in.) The factory made jewel bearings, which are “micro-thin-slices of ruby, sapphire, or the lesser jewel, garnet,” used in precision watches critical to the novel’s Cold War timeframe. Chippewa women excelled in the kind of “hypnotic concentration” required due to their craftsmanship in beading. Intense, backbreaking, eye-soring work that soothed Patrice, taking her mind off of her fears about Vera. Interestingly, the Turtle Mountain plant still exists.

Patrice’s mother miraculously turned a “lean to” shelter with dirt floors and tar papered roofs, no electricity or running water, into a home, having been denied government housing. Thomas lives more modernly on the reservation, though more remotely, alternating between two houses: an older, timber one where he tried to sleep, while his wife of thirty-plus years, three children, and mother-in-law lived in a “cottage” built by the government. A messenger of enduring love who rises up against the ghosts of his past, reminding us “you can never get enough of the ones you love.”

At 450+ pages, chapters move briskly as they’re brief, some just a page or two, shifting storylines and characters. Their voices resound, so we easily keep them straight. Two other characters stand out: Juggie Blue, Wood Mountain’s mother, on the Council with Thomas; and Millie Cloud, daughter of another Chippewa, away on a scholarship at the University of Minnesota. Summoned to assist the Council’s Washington, DC legal fight, she’s “warmed” her community needs her. Eccentric in her mix-matched geometric clothes, but her Chippewa determination is clear-cut.  

Thomas too never gave up. Galvanizing his community, writing letter after letter to the Utah Senator sponsoring the “termination” bill, and other officials, in perfectionist handwriting drilled into him, bringing out his rigid, horrid, haunting boarding school days. Another Federal effort to erase Native culture.

Even with a legacy of brutal betrayals and broken promises, Erdrich’s prose – sorrowful and reverential, tender and harsh, shameful and proud – achieves a remarkable sense of peace. A message for the next generation of Chippewa Indians.

A message for all of us yearning for a way to move forward.

Lorraine

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Actress: A Novel

Stardom and the heavy price paid (Dublin, also London and Hollywood, 1940s-80s; told in 2010s reflections, Bray, east coast of Ireland): What makes a great female movie star? What is the toll it takes on an “outlandishly interesting,” unorthodox Irish actress of theater and film fame? Similarly, on her “overshadowed” daughter, who narrates this enmeshed, intense, way-out mother-daughter relationship where anything goes “so long as Proust or Yeats was involved”? A relationship that’s not quite a relationship. Rather, “the fact of a relationship, but never the truth of it.”

This fictionalized memoir-in-a-novel centers on a push-and-pull relationship involving multiple themes not always easily detected or obvious that Ireland’s First Laureate of Fiction, Man Booker Prize-winning Irish author, Anne Enright, is known for. Actress, her seventh novel, is an intellectually, emotionally charged expose demanding more than any reviewed here.

Partly because of the often dreamlike, surrealistic prose. Literary fiction that sweeps you away, managing to overpower an already captivating relationship about the lives of two troubled, “hellishly lonely,” conflicted female protagonists.

Katherine O’Dell is an alluring, avant-garde Irish actress and singer born in England yet devoted to all things Irish – theater, literature, nationalism. Her “Irishness would grow more poetic and controlling. Over time, it became a national statement, or national lullaby.” Then, she descended into mental illness. Norah is her “whispered” daughter, damaged too. Loaded with conflicting, ambivalent, suppressed, unsure feelings – another reason the novel demands a lot.

Even under the best of circumstances – and these are far, far from that – Norah might not be a reliable narrator since she’s telling this psychologically complex tale saying, “I will always remember – or think I remember.”

A narrator confused by “the difference between what happens in your head and what happens in the room.” A “star struck” girl; a teenager who couldn’t wait to get away from her mother; a caregiver too young to be thrown into mothering her mother. A narrator too innocent to grasp all the goings on in her Dublin house – men especially: a movie producer, a UCD (University College Dublin) professor, and a priest who also preached “existential psychoanalysis,” trained under a famous French psychoanalyst, Jacques Lacan.

Lacan is referred to twice because Enright wants us to psychically dig deeper than we typically do to think about what’s obscured by two female characters. Or, in a psychoanalyst’s world, what’s happening below the surface, coming from the subconscious. “References are everywhere,” so it seems Enright wants us to check them out.

When we do, we learn Lacan’s work is explained in terms of Identity, Love, and Politics – themes Enright infuses in Katherine and Norah’s unusual story. His theories are also described from the perspective of what’s Real, Imaginary, or Symbolic – similar to Norah’s ambiguous prose. Is what Norah says real, imagined, or symbolic? Actress begs for psychoanalysis.

Psychoanalytic assessment is better for understanding the complex emotions of the women, giving the novel an aching, taunting, hypnotic tone.

“I’m interested in that moment of glamour, which is almost a moment of loss as well. Once you see something so beautiful and false, you’re losing it at the same time. So that was the psychological moment, very, you might say, psychoanalytically rich. It’s about beauty and it’s about possession and then losing the beautiful object to the world.”

Love satisfies and comforts yet it’s palpably abusive, warning “you can also be destroyed by love.” For Katherine, “sex was just part of the great problem she sometimes called Love, and other times Art.”

Norah’s telling is also circumspect having missed out on the normality, stability of a positive role-model mother; she didn’t know her father, didn’t even know his identity or name. A “clandestine” only child, often left behind when her mother traveled abroad. Kitty, their housekeeper, was her savior.

As Norah and the reader are trying to figure out the mystifying actress who grabs, seduces everyone’s attention with her extraordinary “ability to be over the top, just by standing still,” we’re trying to figure out Norah too.

Complacent, ill-equipped young Norah avoided, repressed things going on, burying her head in books where she “always felt safe on the page.” Finally confronting her past, triggered by a doctoral student requesting an interview asking “what kind of mother was she?” A question haunting Norah for decades, answering it in her fifties.

“People ask me, ‘What was she like’ and I try to figure out if they mean as a normal person: what was she like in her slippers, eating toast and marmalade, or what was she like as a mother, or what was she like as an actress, we did not use the word star. Mostly, though, they mean what was she like before she went crazy . . .”

Norah’s reluctant to air her mother’s story feeling it a “betrayal.” Regardless, how can she when her mother “could not explain – even to herself – what was going on”? Moreover, how can Katherine be truly knowable when she was forever moving back and forth “in and out of character”? We get a sense of that as time bounces around back and forth, aided by chapters untitled, unnamed.

It wasn’t easy for Katherine to shed her public celebrity persona into a private motherly one, so fiercely immersed in her craft. An artist who could “just Give Give Give” to an “audience who takes, and takes, and then likes to criticise.” Devastating for “a great believer in the nobility of the crowd.”

As Norah dissects her mother in unnerving scenes that feel manic-depressive, she occasionally addresses someone as “you.” We learn early on you is her husband, who, pointedly, feels more imagined than real, or perhaps symbolic of men who straddle good and bad. (Most men are bad, except Katherine’s father, Menton, an Irish traveling theater actor who “brought Shakespeare and melodrama around the Irish countryside.”) Norah’s husband is ghostly as he’s a reference not a presence, depicted in contradictory ways.

She says she loves him, marvels at their enduring marriage, yet they were “always leaving or being left.” She slips in how “irritated” he was at her inability to write – presumably this novel. Published, unlike her mother frantically, fanatically trying to write plays all night, caring about the written word as much as the spoken one, only to be rejected by Boyd O’Neill, the movie producer. Is that what led her to commit a crime?

Soon after, Katherine suffered a mental breakdown. The author is quite open about hers, in her twenties, ending her career with Ireland’s national television, RTÉ (Raidió Teilifís Éireann); Norah worked for them too. Another similarity between the two is they both now live in Bray, south of Dublin, on the sea.

The prose veers from beauty and consummate artistry to gut-punching anger and abuse reflected in graphic sexuality, violence, profanity, madness. Voyeurism, similar to a terrible car accident, we can’t turn our gaze away from.

In hindsight, we might have been better prepared if the beautiful emerald green cover of the US edition (matching Katherine’s striking eyes) remained the same as the UK version, a black-and-white cover of a young girl watching an actress on stage. Apparently, inspired by the fraught relationship between Carrie Fischer (Princess Leia of Star Wars fame) and her famous mother, actress Debbie Reynolds.

Motherhood and sexuality are the prominent themes; artistic, philosophical, religious, political, and racial (English towards Irish) themes wrapped up in them.

Through the good and the bad, Actress sticks. Consciously or unconsciously. Or, maybe it’s the magnetic, hypnotic, provocative prose.

Lorraine

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Half Broke

Broken horses, Broken people – how they can save each other (northern New Mexico, March 2013 – September 2014; 1990s flashbacks): The historic relationship between horses and people goes back centuries. Yet it’s only been since the 1950s that a therapeutic bond – Equine Therapy – has been seriously applied to physical and mental health rehabilitation and healing.

In Ginger Gaffney’s remarkable memoir, the “horse-human” relationship goes much further psychologically. It’s a “last shot” lifeline for a select group of prisoners on a “livestock team” at an “prison-alternative” 17-acre ranch north of Santa Fe, New Mexico. Horse therapy in this “river valley dealing with the blight of poverty and drug addiction much longer than the rest of the states” offers a “sliver of hope” for some convicts stuck in a pernicious cycle in and out of prisons.

Half Broke is a beautiful read, with an empowering message of inspiration and hope that some castaways can find a way out from their inner demons, as impossible as that may seem. Making the memoir a call to prison activists urging reform of our broken criminal justice system.

The author has changed the names of the people in this story out of respect for their privacy. It’s likely, though, she hasn’t for the “giant gods” – “traumatized” wild horses so mistreated and misunderstood they terrorize, having become “dangerous” creatures no one could touch. When they do, horses and people get hurt.

That’s what inspired the prison ranch story. In March 2013, Gaffney received a frantic call from the DS Ranch that one of their wild horses, Luna, was beaten so badly she could lose her eyesight. The caller, Sarah, and Luna, are part of the ranch’s innovative horse-people “gentling” program.

This is no ordinary Western ranch. It’s managers, the “elders,” unconventional ranch owners (no authorities, only prisoners). Residents are not typical ranch hands. Nothing ordinary is happening in these pages. And, candidly, Gaffney tells us she’s not ordinary either, profoundly connecting this enormously talented horse-trainer with 25 years experience to dysfunctional souls and wild horses.

Horses feel “every little touch.” You too will feel the sensitive and perceptive touch of the author’s toolbox of skills to gentle horses and people society has given up on.

Miracles can happen, but not for all. When things go wrong – and plenty does – the prose rises to a suspenseful rhythm and pace, evoking the edge at which “recovery can be slipped away.” Including the author’s.

This searing tale has everything to do with trust, starting with Gaffney who deeply trusts the power of horses to save people. When a significant breach occurs, it shatters Gaffney’s trust in the team. She’s fragile, just like them. Occasional flashbacks to the author’s childhood and coming-of-age years enlightens.

For the first six years of Gaffney’s life, she barely spoke a word. “Extreme shyness” shaped enduring feelings of loneliness and isolation. An unintended benefit of those silent years resulted in Gaffney becoming a keen observer of people’s non-verbal body language and movements, enabling her to quickly assess visual clues as to the emotions these behaviors are communicating. Relating to them personally, she doesn’t act condescending towards the prisoners. She treats them as equals, expecting a lot. She does so for 1½ years, never getting paid. Money isn’t her objective. This becomes her mission, her calling. In turn, everyone is respectful to and grateful for Gaffney’s perseverance at a place “she’s never seen anything like.”

Gaffney’s personal story starts first with sizing up people, then horses. A pro at understanding what the “complex communication systems” of horses are telling us.

Most of the novel is structured in 2013/2014 ranch chapters, a month a time. A step-by-step approach similar to the mantra of taking things one day at a time. Except here it’s literally, gravely, “one step at a time.” One measured, mentored step at a time.

“Fascination with horses came from a place inside me I have never understood,” says the author. We see how this plays out in those few flashback-to-the-90s chapters; few because this memoir isn’t meant to be about her, though she’s at the center of it. We do, though, learn some key things about the author’s emotions: she’s an extremely private person, who didn’t feel she belonged anywhere until horses came into her life. “We all come from somewhere, but that doesn’t mean we belong.” The honesty of horses is what she profoundly cherishes, trusting these majestic animals far more than people. We see how much that matters when the author’s first horse, Belle, rescues her.

At the ranch Gaffney feels she belongs. Eventually, she feels most at home there. While she has a supportive partner, Glenda, she describes her sexuality as another reason she’s felt like an outsider. Not at the ranch, where everyone is an outsider.

For someone whose been quite uncomfortable around people, with a horse Gaffney shows an exceptional touch with those in a “sunken place.” She gets their “broken parts” – “their lack of attention span, their wounded bodies, their anger, the dullness in their eyes” – saying they “look like me.” Or, how she used to look, be.

Her human team consists, over time, of three of about 10 women at the ranch: Flor, Sarah, Eliza. Of the 90 or so men, there’s Tony, Randy, Marcus, Rex, Paul, Omar. The horse team includes sisters Luna and Estrella, Hawk, Billy, Moo, Joker, Izzy, Willie. They represent a number of breeds, such as Painted Horse, Morgan Gelding, Lusitano.

Painted Quarter Horse
via Pixabay
Liver chestnut Morgan gelding
by Countercanter [CC BY-SA]
Lusitano
via Pixabay

All the people/horse names means there’s a lot of characters with individual traits. Horses loom large. A breathtaking challenge for this horse-trainer/psychologist who must keep track of all, to protect, and earn and keep the fragile trust.

Trust is fundamental. Not easy for prisoners lacking role-models, who’ve been let down over and over; people who then let themselves down to a point of feeling there’s no return.

Trust is not easy for Ginger Gaffney either, who “learned to hide, to become invisible.” But now she must be visible. More so, as she has to put herself out there, in harm’s way. Once she evaluates and treats Luna’s emergency, and assesses the team, she leaps in:

“If you want these horses to respect you, you’ll have to respect yourself … How you walk, how you hold your posture, this will tell the horses whether to stomp you or follow you. It also tells them if you are trustworthy or fake.”

There’s more going on at this ranch than horse-training: vocational skills training to fix cars and other mechanical objects, plumbing, ceramics, cooking. Life skills for earning a living when prisoners complete their sentences and are ready to venture out.

Should you Google the DS Ranch, you’ll come up empty. The author has obscured the ranch’s name too, presumably to protect its space. If you keep at it, you may make an eye-opening discovery that this unusual ranch exists elsewhere around the country; and that there are other alternative prison programs managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) conceived as an approach for handling some of the heart-tugging controversy over what to do, if anything, about mustangs running wild on Federal lands in the West.

“I’ve always felt that riding horses was like riding a wave. The wave rolls you along. You don’t kick the wave, or beat it, or even think you can control it. Every wave is unique,” says the author. Though horse therapy programs are fanned out across the country, the people and horses in this vivid, stunning memoir are unique.

Lorraine

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